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To a Mouse
A Poem by Robert Burns
Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication Information
Summary
Themes
End Rhyme
Meter
Use of Diminutives
Setting
Characters
Glossary of Words From the Poem
Complete Text of the Poem
Poem in Modern English
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography of Burns
Index of Study Guides
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2006
Revised in 2011...

Type of Work

.......Robert Burns wrote "To a Mouse" as a vernacular poem that tells a little story in an English dialect called Scots. It contains eight stanzas, each with six lines. 

Publication Information

......."To a Mouse" was written in 1785 and published in Kilmarnock, Scotland, on July 31, 1786, as part of a collection of Burns's poems entitled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect

Summary

.......After a farmer plows up a mouse's nest, he apologizes to the tiny creature while assuring it that he means no harm. He also says he does not mind that the mouse occasionally steals an ear of corn. After all, the farmer reaps a bounty of food from the land; surely, he cannot begrudge the mouse a tiny harvest of its own. Finally, he tells the mouse that it is not alone in failing to build wisely for the future; men fail at that too. 

Themes

Respect Earth and Its Creatures

.......In "To a Mouse," Robert Burns develops the theme of respect for nature's creatures, especially the small, the defenseless, the downtrodden (or, in this case, the uprooted). As a wee creature, the mouse represents not only lowly animals but also lowly human beings–common folk who are often tyrannized by the high and the mighty. 

Foolproof Plans Can Go Awry

.......In the seventh stanza (Lines 27-42), Burns observes that "the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men" often go wrong. This theme can apply not only to the mouse's construction of a nest but also to a human being's construction of a political system or a war plan. Napoleon learned this lesson at Waterloo. 

End Rhyme

.......In each stanza, the first line rhymes with the second, third, and fifth, and the fourth line rhymes with the sixth. Thus, the rhyme scheme is aaabab. The types of end rhyme used include masculine rhyme, as in thrave and lave (Lines 15 and 17); feminine rhyme, as in stibble and nibble (Lines 31 and 32); and near rhyme, as in thieve and live (Lines 13 and 14).

Meter

.......The meter varies. Most of the lines are as follows:

1...Iambic pentameter with catalexis (an incomplete final foot), as in the first two lines of the poem:
.........1.................2............3.................4..............5
Wee SLEEK..|..it COW..|..rin TIM..|..rous BEAST..|..ie

.......1..............2...........3.................4.............5
O WHAT..|..a PAN..|..ic's IN..|..thy BREAST..|..ie


2...Iambic tetrameter, as in lines 13 and 14:

......1...................2.................3.................4......
IDOUBT..|..naWHILES..|..butTHOU..|..mayTHIEVE

........1.....................2...................3.................4......
What THEN?..|..poor BEAST..|..tie THOU..|..maun LIVE


3...Iambic trimeter with catalexis, as in line 12:

An’ FEL..|..low-MOR..|..tal!


4...Iambic dimeter, as in line 46:

.......1.................2.......
On PRO..|..spects DREAR


Use of Diminutives

.......Notice that Burns uses diminutives such as beastie and Mousie to suggest smallness and to endear the mouse to the reader. Webster's New World Dictionary & Thesaurus (Accent Software International, Macmillan Publishers, Version 2.0, 1998) defines diminutive as "a word or name formed from another by the addition of a suffix expressing smallness in size, or sometimes, endearment or condescension, as ringlet (ring + -let), Jackie (Jack + -ie), lambkin (lamb + -kin)." 

Setting

.......The time is the late eighteenth century. The place is a farm in Scotland. Burns, a farmer, was plowing a field when he uprooted the nest of a mouse. Later, he wrote "To a Mouse" to apologize to the "wee beastie" for evicting it from its home. 

Characters

The Narrator: The poet Burns, a farmer, who uproots a mouse's nest while plowing a field. 
The Mouse: A wee creature that scurries off in fear of the human invader.

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Glossary of Words From the Poem

A': All.
Aft: Often.
Agley: Astray.
An': And.
Ane: One.
Awa: Away.
Baith: Both.
Beastie: Tiny animal.
Bickering: Moving while making little noises.
Big: Build.
Blessin: Blessing.
Brattle: Succession of noises.
Breastie: Breast.
Cauld: Cold.
Canna: Cannot.
Cell: Nest, dwelling.
Compar'd: Compared.
Coulter: Plowshare (blade of a plow).
Cow'rin: Cowering (crouching from fear; trembling).
Cozie: Cozy.
Cranreuch: Hoarfrost (dew on grass and plants that freezes).
Daimen: Occasional, infrequent.
E'e: Eye.
Ensuin': Ensuing (following).
Foggage: Densely growing grass; wildly growing grass.
Gang: Go.
Hald: Home.
Housie: House.
Icker: Ear.
Laith: Loath (reluctant, unwilling).
Lave: What is left; what remains.
Lea'e: Leave.
Maun: Must.
Miss't: Miss it.
Mony: Many.
Murd'ring: Murdering.
Na: Not.
Naething: Nothing.
No thy lane: Not alone.
Nought: Nothing.
O': Of.
Och: Interjection expressing regret, exasperation, disapproval, or disgust.
Past: Passed.
Pattle: Long-handled spade to remove earth from the blade of a plow.
Promis'd: Promised.
Rin: Run.
'S: Is.
Sae: So.
Silly: Weak, fragile, feeble.
Sleekit: (1) Sleek, smooth, shiny; (2) sly, sneaky.
Sma': Small.
Snell: Harsh, bitter, severe.
Stibble: Stubble.
Strewin': Strewing.
Thole: Endure, sustain.
Thou's: You are.
Thrave: Twenty-four sheaves of grain. A sheaf is a bundle of cut grain stalks.
Thro': Through.
Tim'rous: Timorous (fearful).
Wad: Would.
Wa's: Walls.
Wee: Tiny, little.
Whiles: Sometimes, at times.
Wi': With.
Win's: Winds.

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To a Mouse
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plow
By Robert Burns
Written in 1785 and Published in 1786

Text of the Poem Poem in Modern English
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie, 
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie! 
Thou need na start awa sae hasty, 
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee, 5
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion, 
Has broken nature’s social union, 
An’ justifies that ill opinion, 
     Which makes thee startle 10
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion, 
An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve; 
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live! 
A daimen icker in a thrave 15
’S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave, 
An’ never miss’t!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin! 
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin! 20
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane, 
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin, 
Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste, 25
An’ weary winter comin fast, 
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast, 
Thou thought to dwell—
Till crash! the cruel coulter past 
     Out thro’ thy cell. 30

That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble, 
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble! 
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble, 
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble, 35
An’ cranreuch cauld!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane, 
In proving foresight may be vain; 
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men 
     Gang aft agley, 40
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, 
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me 
The present only toucheth thee: 
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e. 45
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see, 
I guess an’ fear!
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Tiny, sleek, cowering, fearful mouse,
O, what a panic is in your breast!
You need not start away so hasty,
With pattering noises!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With my murdering spade!

I'm truly sorry that my world,
Has broken into your world,
And justifies your ill opinion of men,
Which makes you startle 
At me, you poor, earth-born companion,
And fellow mortal!

I doubt not that at times you may steal;
What then? poor little animal, you must live!
An occasional ear of corn out of twenty-four sheaves
Is a small request; 
I'll be blest with the rest of the corn,
And never miss the ear you took!

Your tiny house, too, in ruin!
Its fragile walls the winds are strewing!
And nothing, now, to build a new one,
Out of densely growing grass!
And bleak December's winds are following,
Both harsh and keen!

You saw the fields were bare and desolate,
And weary winter coming fast,
And cozy here, beneath the wind,
You thought to dwell—
Till crash! the cruel plowshare passed
Right through your cell.

That little heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Of house and home,
To endure the winter's sleety dribble,
And hoarfrost cold!

But, Mousie, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go often astray,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Still you are blest, compared with me
The present only touches you:
But, Oh! I backward cast my eye.
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

 

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Write an essay that explains the serious messages in this poem.
  • Why does this poem remain fresh and relevant for modern readers?
  • Discuss schemes of businessmen and politicians that "gang aft agley."
  • The subtitle of the poem refers to the mouse as a female. Would the poem have less impact if it were about a male?
  • English varies from country to country and from region to region (or from social class to social class) within a country. For example, Americans refer to the luggage compartment of a car as a trunk, and Englishmen refer to it as a boot. Here are other examples: truck (U.S.), lorry (England); while (U.S.), whilst (England); elevator (U.S.), lift (England); corn (U.S.), maize (England). In England, members of the working class often drop the h sound at the beginning of words such as hat or had. "To a Mouse" is written in an.English-language dialect called Scots. As is readily apparent in the poem, this Scottish dialect contains many words not used in standard English. Write an informative essay about the peculiarities of the English spoken where you live. You might note, for example, that people in your area refer to the dressing ladled on mashed potatoes as sauce but that others refer to it as gravy. Or, you might point out that you use the word pop to refer to what others call soda or soft drink or that you use the term lightning bug to refer to a.firefly or glowworm. 
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